The cecaelia is, in modern Internet parlance, a common term for a mermaid that has octopus limbs rather than a fish tail. Another frequently used name is "octomaid." A famous example of an octopus-limbed mermaid is Disney's sea witch Ursula. I want to focus on "cecaelia," an intriguing name - both singular and plural and pronounced seh-SAY-lee-uh. Most importantly... where did it come from?
The etymology, at first look, is baffling. It starts with the same syllable as the word "cephalopod" - cephalo (head) + pod (foot) - but that's not much to go on. It is not related to the Latin girls’ name Cecilia, or to the limbless amphibians called caecilians. Both of those come from the word “caecus,” meaning “blind.”
In Making a Splash (2017), Philip Hayward suggests that the word was inspired by a comic book character from the 1970s. The short comic "Cilia" appeared in Warren Publishing's Vampirella Magazine issue 16 in April 1972. It was reprinted in Issue 27, September 1973. Cilia, a beautiful mermaid-like woman with three tentacles in place of each leg, rescues a sailor from drowning. Although her appearance is horrifying to humans, she is a kind and gentle spirit and her relationship with the sailor grows into love. The story ends tragically when the prejudiced human community discovers her.
Cilia refers to her species as "cilophyte." The term was probably invented by the author - the etymology, again, is murky. As pointed out on the TV Tropes page for this comic, "phyte" means growth and "cilo" could be related to "cilium" (fine hairs), Scylla (a Greek sea monster), or "kilo" (Greek for thousand). Perhaps it was also meant to look similar to "cephalopod."
As Hayward points out, the word "cecaelia" does not appear until around 2007 or 2008. So I went diving.
The "cecaelia" can be traced to a Wikipedia page created in March 2007. (Thank you to Wikipedia administration for their help recovering the page information!) According to the earliest version of the page, the cecaelia is "a composite mythical being." The name "is a corruption of coleoidian, a genus of squid, and derives originally from a comic in Eerie magazine from the early 1970s featuring an octopoidal character named Cecaelia" who "helped a shipwrecked sailor back to land." This is apparently meant to be "Cilia;" the plot is right, as is the publisher. Later versions of the page corrected the character information. In addition, "Coleoidea" is the subclass of cephalopods which includes octopus, squid and cuttlefish.
The only source in this first version was a link to a discussion thread on seatails.org, a mermaid-enthusiast messageboard. Created by Kurt Cagle, Seatails began as a print magazine that ran briefly in 1987 and then moved to the web, shifting through several platforms over the years. In the early 2000s, it existed in a discussion board format. Members included numerous artists and collectors who were interested not only in mermaids but in other hybrid mythological creatures.
The link was apparently quickly deleted, since it did not meet Wikipedia's standards for sources. Unfortunately, Seatails is now defunct and the discussion thread in question cannot be reached even through the Internet Archive.
In addition to the information from Wikipedia, I contacted Kurt Cagle via the current Seatails page on the art site DeviantArt. I also contacted a DeviantArt user called EVAUnit4A, who identified themself as a user of the old message board and a contributor to the Cecaelia Wikipedia page.
Based on that, here are the main points of the history of the cecaelia as I understand it:
If the comic inspired all this, why wasn’t the species term “cilophyte” adopted instead? First of all, it seems it took a while to track down the specifics of the comic. EVAUnit4A suggested that perhaps cilophyte was “too unwieldy to type out properly" and that people may have wanted "a word closer to real octopus and squid." When I reached out to Cagle, he wrote back that another influence was the song “Cecelia” by Simon and Garfunkel, about a fickle and demanding lover.
According to Cagle, “I actually kind of forgot about [the cecaelia] after a while, and was surprised to find the term gaining traction a few years later.”
I have to take a quick detour here. Wikipedia is near-universally used, often more easily than print encyclopedias because it’s just a push of a button away. But it can also be edited by anyone at any time. As a result, it has strict guidelines. One of the most important is that "Wikipedia is not for things made up one day." The page for this rule, which has existed since 2005, sums up many of Wikipedia's policies, including that articles must be on something notable and famous, and must include verifiable sources (such as a reliable book or article).
Thus, the Wikipedia page for Cecaelia had a tortured history. Although there were quite a few works that featured such creatures, the name itself was an original creation. The page was originally Cecælia, then changed to Cecaelia, moved in 2010 to "Octopus person" as "a more proper title," and the last holdout was finally deleted in 2018. It now redirects to "List of hybrid creatures in folklore," specifically the section "Modern fiction." The word pops up occasionally on other pages - as of the time of writing, the Wikipedia page for Ursula calls her a cecaelia.
As previously seen, the oldest versions of the "cecaelia" page were honest about its origins. Via the Wayback Machine, a version from December 2008 said even more definitively that the term was a "distorted mispronounced" version of Cilia. This clarification, buried in the paragraph and easier to miss, was ultimately lost. By April 27, 2010, when the page existed as "Octopus Person," the description of the comic had been deleted and only a brief and confusing reference to "Cilia" remained.
Unclear language was another problem; throughout many edits, the page called the cecaelia a “composite mythical being.” A composite myth is constructed from shorter stories or fragments of tradition, often intended to recreate lost legends. However, readers could have taken the phrase in a couple of ways. In the case of the cecaelia, they might read it as “a being of composite myth based on various media," or they might read it as “a mythical being that is a composite of human and octopus.”
Readers took it the second way, with many adopting the term in the belief that it was traditional. Here's one example from a blog in 2008 which specifically gives Wikipedia as its source. Looking through some of my writing from eight years ago, I found that I also used the term without a second thought after encountering it on Wikipedia.
The word spread fairly quickly. The word was picked up across DeviantArt. In April 2008, a user on the roleplaying-based Giant in the Playground Forums posted a writeup for "cecaelias" as a monster race. Cecaelia was the name of an octopus-woman monster in AdventureQuest Worlds, an MMORPG released in 2008. Pathfinder's RPG Bestiary 3, released in 2011, featured the Cecaelia as a monster, and the word also features in Cassandra Clare's Bane Chronicles (2015).
Most recently, the Disney tie-in novel Part of Your World by Liz Braswell (2018) refers to Ursula as a cecaelia. This was, to my knowledge, the first time Ursula had ever received this name in canonical material. Previously she was only called a cecaelia by fans, as in the fan-run database disney.wikia.com.
So are there any traditional sources that feature octopus-like mermaids?
In a Nootka tale from the Pacific Northwest, the animal characters Octopus and Raven show up apparently in human form. When Octopus is angered, her hair (braided into eight sections) transforms into powerful tentacles (Caduto & Bruchac 1997.) I don't know what the characters of Octopus and Raven might have been called in the original language, but according to firstvoices.com, the Nuu-chah-nulth word for Octopus is tiiłuup, and Raven is quʔušin.
"The Devil-Fish's Daughter," a Haida tale also from the Pacific Northwest, features devil-fish (octopi) who can take human form. But this is more a case of animal shapeshifters, not hybrids.
Native Languages, a most helpful site for American Indian legends, has little to say on the octopus. It notes only that octopi "do not play a major role in most Native American mythology."
Some pages on the cecaelia, apparently derived from Wikipedia, claim that the artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) painted octopus-woman hybrids. I have found no evidence for this. Hokusai did paint the erotic 1814 “Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife," which features a woman with octopi. (If you look it up, be advised that it is NSFW.)
The "sea monk" or monk-fish of medieval bestiaries also looks vaguely tentacley. Theories on what inspired it include squid and angelshark.
Finally, Scylla, a sea monster of Greek myth, is said by Homer to have twelve dangling feet. She might be understood as somewhat like a squid. Homer's Scylla is not particularly humanoid, but the term has gained some popularity in recent years.
In essence, there is no traditional octopus mermaid. Only in the 20th century did the idea of octopus-human hybrids gain popularity as a symbol of horror and evil. H. P. Lovecraft's squid-faced god Cthulhu first appeared in 1928, later to influence the monstrous "mind flayers" of Dungeons and Dragons. The tragic Cilia the cilophyte, from 1972, has an appearance disturbing to humans despite her kind soul. And in 1989, Disney used the grasping, writhing half-octopus Ursula to contrast their innocent heroine in The Little Mermaid. (Their original concept art had Ursula as a more traditional fish-tailed mercreature.)
However, this budding concept had no unified name. "Cilophyte" was an obscure and unique creation. "Cecaelia" was born around 2007 on the Seatails site, as a name inspired by "Cilia," "cilophyte," "coleoidea," and the alluring Cecelia of Simon and Garfunkel. Artists and other users on the discussion board popularized the title. The Wikipedia page boosted the concept, with many readers taking it to mean that the cecaelia was an established legend. At this point, it's taken on a life of its own, although there are a few other names floating around as well.
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Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.